Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 13: 24-30)
We find Jesus on a parable kick in the 13th chapter of Matthew. And for whatever reason, seeds seem to be heavy on his mind, as earlier in the chapter he shares the parable about seeds thrown on different kinds of soil. In this one, it’s not the soil that’s different, but the seeds.
Now scholars have debated endlessly about what might’ve been going on in the context Matthew was writing to that would’ve elicited a parable like this; a parable that is only found in this gospel. But the rest of us hear this parable about someone throwing bad seed among the good seed and want an answer to a very simple question: who. Who did this? I mean, it is kind of a lame thing to do, right? Who would do such a thing? That’s what we want to know.
Which is totally understandable – it’s human nature. When things go awry, we want someone to bear responsibility; someone to raise their hand and go, “it was me.” Am I right? We come back to our car in the parking lot to find a thick white scratch all the way down the passenger side – who did it? The tables and chairs in the Heritage Room have been moved out and taken elsewhere – who did it? Someone ate the last chocolate chip cookie in the cookie jar, a cookie we had our eyes on all week – who did it?
There’s another question intertwined in the “who,” and that is why. Why would someone – whoever it was – come in the middle of the night and intentionally sow bad seed among the good – why? That question will get you every time. Why would someone purposely scratch the passenger door of our car – and if they didn’t do it on purpose, why would they not at last leave a note? Why would someone move tables and chairs and not put them back? And why, oh why Lord, would someone take the last cookie out of the cookie jar? Why?
Two verses into this parable, and these two questions already burn at us. Here’s what is interesting: “who” and “why” do not appear to be a concern to Jesus. At all. Did you notice that? Throughout his parable, Jesus noticeably refrains from addressing the “who” and the “why” of things. And it’s unlikely that he simply forgets to address it. What is more likely is that the “who” and the “why” are just not a concern for him; they are not important to the story, not important to the message he is trying to convey. Which means, as tempting as the “who” and “why” might be, they should not be important to us, either.
What is important, and what we’re meant to sit with in this parable, is a very simple, if not wholly unsatisfying, fact: and that is that there is bad seed among the good seed. That’s it. That’s the parable. No plot twist, no second chapter. There are weeds among the wheat. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
And if you want to get technical about it, they aren’t actually weeds. At least not the kind we wrestle with in our gardens and flower beds. The Greek word used here for “weeds” is zizaion, which is a plant found in Palestine that has what I feel certain to be the greatest plant name ever: bearded darnel. I’m going to say it again because I can – bearded darnel.
One source describes bearded darnel “a devil of a weed” and that it “defies Emerson’s claim that a weed is a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” Known in biblical terms as “tares,” bearded darnel looks nearly identical to wheat. But the seed it bears is poisonous, causing everything from hallucinations to even death.
And even more to the point of Jesus’ parable, the roots of bearded darnel surround the roots of the good plants nearby. And in so doing, the weed not only hijacks the good plants’ precious nutrients and water, but – as Jesus himself points out – makes it nearly impossible to root it out without damaging the good crop.
Now it could be said that the parable ends on a bit of an uptick – the news that the weeds will in fact be separated from the wheat at the harvest, presumably by some super-harvester who alone has the skills and know-how to successfully pull out the bad without damaging the good. And I guess it’s good to know that’s going to happen……someday…
But for now, well, we’re kind of stuck – right? We gotta live with the weeds among the wheat.
Let me ask you something, people of God: how do you feel about that? I mean, how do you really feel about that?
Maybe on average days you’re okay with the idea that there’s good and bad in our world and we kind of have to live with it. But I have to think you – like me – have moments when we don’t feel that way. When it’s not okay to just live with the weeds among the wheat. When we are sick and tired of the brokenness, the hurt and suffering, the polarization and the pain. When we ask, “Why do bad things happen,” because we honestly don’t know and we really, really wish we did.
I am certain you’ve asked that question before, in one form or another. There are many variations, shapes and sizes of it:
Why did my grandmother have to die?
Why did the hurricane devastate my home?
Why did I flunk my Spanish test after studying so hard for it?
Why can’t I ever seem to get a good job?
Why can’t I ever hold on to a job?
Why did a gunman shoot up a school again?
Why is traffic on Providence so horrible?
Why did I get cancer?
Why did my boyfriend break up with me?
Why is our country in the mess it’s in?
Why is my health failing me?
Why am I sad more than I am happy?
Why do bad things happen?
And the temptation, when we dare to ask these questions, is to desperately land on an answer, even if there really isn’t an answer to be found. Still, we answer them, because questions like these left dangling out there feel incomplete, and we are creatures who long for closure.
The problem is that oftentimes the answers we come up with, the answers we tell ourselves and tell others, are not only non-answers, but can wind up making things worse than what led us to ask the question in the first place. Answers like:
Time will heal all wounds.
Life goes on.
There’s always some out there who has it worse than you.
Count your blessings.
God needed an angel.
It’s going to get better, I know it will.
God never gives us more than we can handle.
Everything happens for a reason.
It must be God’s will.
I wonder if you’ve ever given voice to any of these “answers” before? Yeah, me too.
Why do bad things happen?
I wonder, people of God, I wonder if the better answer to all of those questions, and so many others like them, might involve three simple yet hard-to-say words:
I don’t know. I don’t know.
I know, it’s weird, right? Feels like it should be more definitive, a period at the end of a sentence instead of dot dot dot….. But consider this: what it may lack in definitiveness, it more than makes up for in authenticity. And maybe that’s what’s really important. More important than explaining or rationalizing or postulating or theologizing, trying to make sense out of the often nonsensical.
I don’t know. I don’t know why bad things happen. I don’t know why your grandmother died, I don’t know why you can’t get a job, I don’t know why our country is in a mess and I certainly don’t know why you got cancer. I don’t know why we have to live with weeds among the wheat. But what I do know is that this is where we are. And we are here together.
Now, an important distinction needs to be made here: there are certainly instances when we see all that’s wrong in our world – injustices, brokenness; things we not only can work to change but in fact are called to change as people of faith. And we absolutely should work to change those things. The parable of the weeds and wheat is not telling us to simply throw our hands up in the air and accept the bad in the world. It is only telling us to expect it. To not be surprised or disheartened by it. To live life, as a mentor of mine once put it, with “eyes wide open.”
One scholar has this to say about our parable:
Yes, there are now weeds among the wheat. How often do our lives face similar dilemmas? If not with wheat and weeds, then with a multitude of other difficult choices we are faced making:
- like between getting an extra job to support the family, or staying at home to spend more time with the family;
- between supporting someone who consistently struggles at work and pulls the quality of your team down, or letting that someone go;
- between choosing the best school you’ve been accepted to, or one that is more affordable;
- between two different treatment options in response to a grave illness;
- between staying in your current job where things are comfortable, or choosing to move on to newer, but unknown, pastures;
- between giving into peer pressure because it stinks being left out, or choosing to risk isolation.
Every day of our lives, choices like these. Very little cut and dry, very little definitive. Weeds among the wheat. Here, it’s not contrived answers we’re after. Here, it’s something else.
Some number of years ago, a pastor-to-be in his chaplaincy internship is in the middle of his first night on-call. He’s a year away from graduating with his M.Div and beginning his first call in ordained ministry. He tells himself he is ready for whatever might come his way.
On this particular night he walks through the doors of a hospital room, having previously learned that the man in the bed is gravely ill, that death is imminent, and that his wife needs support. He walks in and finds her sitting by his bed holding his hand; he in a deep sleep, she with the weight of the world on her shoulders.
He introduces himself as the chaplain; and the minute he does she starts peppering him with questions. She fires them off as if they’ve been building up inside her all day long, which they have. All variations of “why do bad things happen.” And he responds to the questions by doing what he thinks he is there to do: he answers them. Answers with all knowledge and wisdom and insight he’s acquired in his seminary training. For every question asked he happily provides a perfectly good-sounding answer.
And then, mercifully, she motions for him to stop talking. And she says in as sweet a voice as possible, “I’m sorry, chaplain, but I’m not really looking for answers. Can you just sit here and listen and be with me?”
And he most certainly can.
Beloved, it is okay to say we don’t know when we don’t. It is true – one day, the harvester will come and set things right. One day the bad will be separated from the good.
But for now, there are weeds among the wheat. For now, the roots are intertwined. We’d love to know “who” and even more so “why.” But perhaps it’s not answers we’re really looking for. Perhaps it’s simply the assurance that we are all trudging through this weed-infested wheat field together, and the fact that we are doing it together is what matters most.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 3, 260.
 Taken from I Know Just How You Feel: Avoiding The Cliches Of Grief by Erin Linn, and Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.